The Guardian, April 19, 2014
A rancher's armed battle against the US government is standard libertarian fare
Cliven Bundy's standoff with the BLM is over a paltry monthly grazing fee. But it's also over more - the idea of the public interest
Perhaps the most remarkable feature of American democracy is the magnificent estate of public land that it reserved from the very beginning for the use of all citizens, rich or poor. There is nothing like it in the democracies of Europe, which came into being with nations already carved up into private fiefdoms. The Great Idea that hundreds of millions of acres of forests, deserts, rivers and prairies should be owned by, and managed for, the public interest has had a profound and lasting influence on American culture.
But not everyone has accepted it.
Cliven Bundy’s armed standoff with the National Park Service and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is the latest flare-up in a long, ongoing, often-paranoid revolt against federal ownership public lands, even the idea of a public interest at all.
He's part of a small group of extreme libertarians, corporate profiteers, armed militia members and livestock ranchers who have tried before to seize control of public lands, who nurture an intense hatred of the federal government, and who have a long history of violent eruptions going back to the failed “sagebrush rebellions” of the 20th century and before.
Threats of violence are de rigeur and actual violence too common in the modern sagebrush rebellion: pipe bombs planted on wilderness trails, sent to environmental groups, exploded in US Forest Service and BLM offices.
Bundy’s chapter began in 1993, when he stopped paying the monthly grazing fee to the BLM that he and his father before him had paid for decades. The fee, currently a paltry sum of $1.35 per month for each of his cow and calf pairs, is collected to offset a small portion of the public cost of maintaining the grass, water, roads, and the health of the lands he grazes. It’s not a lot to ask; indeed it’s a massive federal subsidy that few businesses receive – you can’t feed a parakeet on $1.35 per month.
Bundy claimed the BLM had no right to charge him due to a thoroughly debunked, but eternally-circulating, libertarian theory that the US Constitution forbids federal ownership of land. In Bundy’s financially self-serving world view, the land on which his cattle graze does not belong to the American people, and thus the BLM has no right to manage it or charge him for the grass and water he takes from it every year.
After many warnings, the BLM revoked his permit for lack of payment. But since he doesn’t recognize the federal government as having any authority over the land, Bundy has continued to turn his cattle – now trespass cattle – out for the last twenty years. In that time he’s racked up a bill of some $1m in fees, fines and interest which he refuses to pay.
So why did the BLM allow Bundy to run an illegal business trespassing on public land for twenty years? The agency obtained three court orders – the first in 1998, the latest in 2013 – requiring Bundy to remove the trespass cattle, but still the agency did nothing until last week’s bungled confiscation attempt.
The answer is simple and very western: because of Bundy’s history of violent rhetoric.
Knowing that the confiscation of his trespass cattle will be a federal police action, Bundy, with repeated reference to his weapons, has made clear that he doesn’t recognize and won’t submit to federal police power. Indeed, he claims to not recognize or obey federal laws, and denies the legitimacy of the federal government itself. In his own words: "I don’t recognize the United States government as even existing."
Nor does he recognize the legitimacy of the federal court system. He filed a motion to dismiss a BLM legal case by claiming that he is outside the reach of federal courts because he is a “citizen of Nevada.” The court was not persuaded by his submission of religious texts.
This is all standard far-right, survivalist, Libertarian, militia legal theory and posturing. The feds have seen it blow up into bombings and gun fights too often. They were in no rush to risk a potentially violent conflict. But that’s exactly what they got last week, with dozens of armed militia thugs aiming rifles at federal employees.
The great irony here, or perhaps manipulation, is that while Bundy has wrapped his range war in the flag of states-rights and the sanctity of county and federal governments, his twenty-year stint as a freeloading trespasser has trampled county and state laws and policies just as thoroughly as federal laws. His refusal to recognize federal lands, for example, is in direct contradiction with the Nevada State Constitution.
His old grazing permit was eventually purchased by Clark County which used its grazing-free status as legally required mitigation to offset habitat destruction elsewhere in the county. Bundy’s trespass cattle violate the county's policy. His zone of trespass moreover, has expanded over the years to include National Park Service and state lands, including the latter’s Overton Wildlife Manage Area. One of his bulls attacked a state ranger in the Overton Wildlife area while illegally trespassing there.
His cattle have also trespassed on and damaged golf courses, private gardens and community gardens.
Patriotism is indeed the last recourse to which a scoundrel clings. Bundy’s local patriotism seems to end as soon as state and county public interests get in the way of his business interests. With his militia gathered round him, he may prove true that if you steal a little they throw you in jail, but steal a lot and they make you king.
For a little while.
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This article originally appeared here.
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